PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) — A Palo Alto man has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Palo Alto, claiming damages of $10.4 million, stemming from a interaction with Palo Alto Police officers at the man’s mobile home in February 2018.
Attorney Cody Salfen provided home surveillance video of the incident to KPIX 5–it begins with Officer Chris Conde in a heated exchange in front of the home of Gustavo Alvarez, in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, claiming he saw Alvarez driving his vehicle with a suspended license.READ MORE: 3 Teens Accused Of Killing Man, Stealing His Dog & Car In San Francisco On New Year's Eve
Alvarez repeatedly questioned Conde about whether or not the officer witnessed Alvarez drive the white Prius seen in the foreground of the video.
“You chased me down, who you know was driving?” Alvarez said from his doorway.
“I didn’t,” Conde responded.
“So why you chase me down?” Alvarez said.
Alvarez then entered his home and shut the door. Conde called for backup. It turns out that a judge would dismiss the charges months later, in part because Conde never called in Alvarez’s license to dispatchers to check the status of the license before stopping Alvarez.
A short time later, several officers arrived at Alvarez’s door with guns drawn, shouting commands to exit the home. Officers kicked down the door, dragged Alvarez outside and handcuffed him as he lay on the hood of his Prius.
The video appears to show Sgt. Wayne Benitez striking Alvarez at least once while he was in custody in handcuffs. And then clearly shows Benitez lifting Alvarez up and then slamming his face against the glass. The force of the impact cut Alvarez’s lip and loosened a tooth.
Benitez can be clearly heard in the clip saying, “You think you’re a tough guy?” while injuring Alvarez. Palo Alto PD policy requires all officers to file a “use of force” report any time such actions take place.
However, Benitez’s report made no mention of the incident and only said, “I put Alvarez on the hood of the car, where he was handcuffed. No other force was used on Alvarez.”
In addition, Benitez’s own microphone recorded what Salfen described as disparaging remarks against the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and mocked Alvarez’s homosexuality using an effeminate voice.
“See how much they behave when we put our foot down? We’re not gonna get s— on out here by these frickin’ low lifes,” Benitez said in the video.READ MORE: San Francisco Police Preparing to Handle Niner Fan Festivities on Sunday
“He’s gay. [Laughter] And then Dad was behind him. ‘You guys go away!’” Benitez said in the video.
LaDoris Cordell, a former Santa Clara County judge, former San Jose Independent Police Auditor and longtime Palo Alto resident, reviewed the video clips and police reports and issued a strong rebuke of Palo Alto PD and Sgt. Benitez.
“I was disappointed, I was outraged, and very, very concerned about the culture of the Palo Alto Police Department,” said Cordell. “What I saw was a sergeant who had no problem expressing to his officers in training that he was racist and homophobic.”
“In my view, he does not need to be in this profession. Period. End of story,” Cordell added.
Salfen has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court naming the city, Palo Alto PD, Chief Robert Jonsen, Sgt. Benitez, Officer Conde, and several other officers as plaintiffs Only Sgt. Benitez has been placed on administrative leave. The other officers remain on duty.
“The Palo Alto Police Department as a whole suffers from a culture of violence, culture of racism, a culture of homophobia, xenophobia. This was clearly a perpetrated as a result of Gustavo’s socioeconomic class, and that is not something that can be tolerated,” Salfen said.
The police department referred questions to City Manager Ed Shikada. Shikada issued a written statement:
“Out of respect for the legal process and the rights of all involved, the City does not comment on matters in active litigation. The public should know that the Police Department has procedures to investigate allegations of misconduct thoroughly and to hold officers accountable if misconduct is determined to have occurred. The City and the Police Department care deeply about our community and strive to provide the best service possible, expecting all City staff to treat everyone in the community fairly and with respect.”
Cordell implored Chief Jonsen and city leaders to reach out to Buena Vista residents.
“What I want to see is leadership coming forward, and speaking to the community, and specially to the residents of Buena Vista Mobule Park, that they have nothing to fear, that if they are abiding by the law, that they’re going to be protected by officers and not assaulted by them,” said Cordell.
Alvarez has a criminal history that includes burglary and DUI. Cordell says officers are held to a high standard of conduct, whether dealing with law abiding citizens or criminal suspects.MORE NEWS: IRS Website Will Soon Require Facial Recognition To Log Into Your Account
“But even when they are dealing with someone who has violated the law, there are still standards of behavior, ” said Cordell, ” An injustice to them is an injustice to everyone who lives in Palo Alto and beyond.”